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Sunday, April 05, 2020

Putting together the perfect tennis player with Mary Pierce

From fitness of Martina Navratilova to the heart of Monica Seles, here's what Mary Pierce's perfect tennis player looks like.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | New Delhi | Updated: March 3, 2020 8:54:49 pm
Former France tennis player Mary Pierce. (Source: Twitter/MaryPierce)

What does a perfect women’s tennis player look like? The Indian Express caught up with Mary Pierce and asked the former world No. 3 to help us put together a Frankenstein’s monster to rule the court.

We would say a specific trait and Pierce would reply with the first player that came to her mind. She agreed to do so, but on one condition. With a chuckle, Pierce said: “I have to take myself out of consideration for this.”

FITNESS

“Martina Navratilova. Just because she was the first person to bring that into the game. Kind of the pioneer. At the time women weren’t really working on that and she just changed it with her focus on fitness, nutrition. A real game-changer in that sense.”

Cross-training and physical regimen were concepts unheard of on pro-tennis circuit, when Navratilova made them the mantras. After a meeting with basketball hall of famer Nancy Lieberman, Navratilova took up strength training for conditioning, running and basketball to improve footwork. The on-court practice sessions to stretched from one hour to four.

Belittlers claimed Navratilova “must have a chromosomic screw loose somewhere”, and the American also missed out on endorsement deals won by rival and apparently suitably-feminine Chris Evert. But focus on fitness helped her to 18 singles Grand Slam titles and a record 20 consecutive years (1975–1994) in top 10. She also put out fitness VHS tapes and books to help the masses.

BACKHAND

“(long pause) Well, the first person that came to my mind is Gabriela Sabatini (laughs). I mean, because it is a particularly beautiful backhand.”

It’s an endangered shot in women’s tennis now, but the single-handed backhand was all the rage back in the day thanks to Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. Gabriela Sabatini, however, was one of the first to put dizzying RPM’s on the shot to generate top spin, especially lethal on his preferred surface of clay.

The sweeping, fluid, full-loop one-handed backhand, played off the heavy frame, was a thing of beauty. And while many remember just the slice played deeper and deeper, she had all the shots from the backhand side: heavy topspin, flat drive, chipped lobs, dropshots and the overhead.

FOREHAND

“Steffi Graf.”

The first woman to really swat the yellow fuzz from the forehand side, the 22-time Grand Slam singles champion was aided by her footwork and speed. She would run around the backhand, glide into the ad corner and hit the signature inside-out forehand either cross court or down the line. So fierce was the stroke, thanks to the remarkable eastern grip and racquet head acceleration, that Graf was nicknamed ‘Fraulein Forehand (or Miss Forehand in German) by the late commentator Bud Collins.

SERVICE

“Serena. So fierce and intense. Obviously physically she hits it so hard, but the placement is also the key.”

It starts with the consistent toss, the fluidity, timing and placement.

It is not just that Serena serves fast (there have been tournaments where she has outgunned even Novak Djokovic) but she also varies the pace, the spin and the slice. The consistently fully-stretched arms and the jump assist not just the speed, but the accuracy as well. Over the last ten years, her average first serve speed has been 170kph and the success rate in service games 82%. Comparatively, an average WTA player serves at 158kph and their success rate is 71%. And the top spin second serve ably backs that first-serve bomb by the 23-time singles Major champion.

SHOT SELECTION

“Martina Hingis was a very intelligent player. She used to play tennis like she was playing chess. She was super efficient, super smart. Not the most powerful player out there but really, really smart.”

Pierce is not the first to liken Hingis to a chess player. After she had won the French Open girls tournament at 12 (!), Switzerland’s national coach Roy Sjogren said: “She’s like a young Bobby Fischer playing chess.” Hingis not just survived but thrived against the Amazonian power-hitters with racquet control, shot selection and her smarts. She outthought and outmaneuvered her way to five Grand Slam titles and no1 ranking, setting a series of “youngest-ever” records during the 1990s and retiring at the age of 22 in 2003.

After a comeback and second retirement, she came back in 2013 and applied the tennis IQ to win 3 women’s doubles (two with Sania Mirza) and six mixed doubles titles (4 with Leander Paes). “Martina is such a smart tennis player and she knows exactly what movements I’m going to do,” Leander said in an interview.

SPEED

“I was thinking Kim Clijsters. she is super fast. (On Clijster’s comeback) I didn’t see her match, but I saw the score (2-6, 6-7) against Muguruza, who is playing well right now. I thought ‘that’s a good score’. Kim must be playing well, especially cause it’s her first one after a layoff, so I was impressed.”

Kim Clijsters’s strength was her movement, especially on the hard courts.

It’s probably in the genes — her father was a professional footballer for Belgium while mother was a gymnast — but Kim Clijsters’s strength was her movement, especially on the hard courts. Just like a Novak Djokovic, Clijsters could retrieve any ball even when stretched or doing splits. And the four-time Grand Slam champion pioneered the puzzling art of sliding on the hard court.

Last month, she played her first match since 2012 against Australian Open finalist Garbine Muguruza. She lost 6-2, 7-6(3), but the 36-year-old “felt like for a while I was dominating some of the points.”

HEART

“Monica Seles, without a doubt. What a fierce competitor. I mean… (pfft). Just amazing.”

The youngest ever French Open champion at 16, Monica Seles won eight Grand Slam singles titles before her 20th birthday. In 1993, she was the victim of an on-court stabbing which forced her out for over two years. She did win a fourth Australian Open title in 1996, taking the total haul to 9, Seles couldn’t replicate the initial run.

But heart is more about being a warrior on court. In an interview, Sarasota Herald Tribune columnist Mic Huber talked about Seles’ softer side in an interview.

“I’ve known (Seles) since she was eleven. She’s a truly nice person. She’ll stop and talk to a child and their parents on the street or someone with a pet – and she remains in contact with people she met on the street and befriended. I remember that I used to get a handwritten Christmas card from her when she was a teenager.”

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